With the new DC universe rolling out this month, a lot of the comic news and talk has been about that; what’s changed, what’s the same, and who’s still around. This past week, however, a lot of talk about that (and non-DC books) has been drowned out by the fresh but familiar controversy of how women are portrayed in comics. Instead of writing another piece on that (I rant enough on Twitter), I wanted to write on the superhero books I think portray women as solid, complex, and flawed characters. They’re women that I can relate to, women that remind me of my friends, women that -aside from the crazy super powers- I can imagine live just down the hall from me. These are examples of what I look for in female characters, not just in comics, but all media.
Gotham Central ~ Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka
This is easily one of my favorite series of all time. Brubaker and Rucka take the Gotham City Police Department and make it feel like a drama you’d see on HBO. It’s dark, gritty, and entirely believable. The two writers create a Gotham from the average person’s view, giving the reader an entirely different perspective on the insanity that is Gotham City. The members of the Major Crimes Unit get to deal with the same rogues gallery that Batman does, but without all the cool gadgets. Members of the MCU are varied and women are not a small minority. They make up about a third of the characters in the book and more than half of its focus. Renee Montoya is easily my favorite and -lucky for me- the series explores her character quite a bit. Early in the series Renee is outed as a lesbian at work, exposing her to ridicule and disdain from her co-workers. In her personal life she has to deal with the fact that her family still doesn’t know and it’s affecting her relationship with her girlfriend. While the book is a police procedural with a superhero twist, it’s mostly about the people and how their job affects their lives. This has some of the best, most well developed characters in comics and the women are not remotely an exception. I cannot sing enough praises of this book or its creative team.
Detective Comics Featuring Batwoman ~ Greg Rucka and JH Williams III
Batwoman taking over Detective Comics was pretty big. Not only did she finally get a book after years of limbo, she got Detective Comics. After Batman’s “death”, one of DC’s longest running titles went to a different character. Not only was the book headlined by a woman, it was headlined by a lesbian. Kate Kane has gone through some pretty rough events in her life: her mother and sister were killed by terrorists, she was kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and then there’s the little thing about her being stabbed in the heart by a bunch of cultists that worship crime. Everything that’s happened to her almost make Batman’s tragedies pale in comparison. The best part of the run is Kate’s history, from her childhood to when she decides to become Batwoman. This is where the characters really shine. Kate herself is fleshed out into a fully realized character and the reader knows her motives for being Batwoman. Rucka and Williams created another believable cast of characters, even with the supernatural element to the book. They also pull off something that can be hard for some writers (*ahem). Sex. In Batwoman it’s organic, it naturally flows from the story; and while it’s sexy, it’s not exploitative. These are two characters who happen to have sex. It’s not done for shock value or fan service it’s just a part of the story. I also love the practicality of Kate’s costume and the care they took to make her costume believable.
Manhunter ~ Marc Andreyko and Jesus Saiz
Manhunter is a pretty unique mainstream DC book. Kate Spencer is a workaholic, a divorced mother who is bad with kids, and a chain smoker. Oh, yeah, and she killed Copperhead. With her staff. Blew his brains out all over the sewers, in fact. If Gotham Central were a TV show, it’d be on HBO. If Manhunter were a TV show, it’d be on Showtime. Kate is, as you may have guessed at this point, is a deeply flawed character, as are all of the characters in this book. Yet even with all of her faults, you like her. You may not want to be her friend until much later on in the series, but you like her and find yourself easily identifying with her. The cast is well rounded and brilliant, Kate’s reluctant partner, Dylan Battle, her friend Cameron Chase, her ex husband, and her son Ramsey. It turns out Kate even has ties to the original JSA. The book, unfortunately, was relatively short lived and was canceled, revived then canceled again.
Birds of Prey ~ Gail Simone
Birds of Prey is the most well known superhero team that features mostly women. Gail Simone is, of course, a well known name in comics. Some may say it’s because she’s one of the few visible female creators, but in reality it’s because she writes fantastic characters. Birds of Prey is a book with a mostly female cast, one headlined by a brilliant partnership of Black Canary and Oracle. While that relationship wasn’t started by Simone, she made it rock solid. The BoP roster has changed over time but the relationships between the characters are always solid, always relatable. Each woman is her own person and each brings her own unique perspective to the team. This isn’t a book where the characters are interchangeable, this is a book that highlights the differences between each woman and how they work together. They don’t always agree with or even always like each other, and that makes this book so good. Where else can you see Big Barda, Misfit, Huntress and many others in one kick-ass book?
Exiles ~ Judd Winick
Your eyes aren’t fooling you, I really did write Winick’s name as part of an example of a book that features solid, strong female characters. He even pulled off sexy without being exploitative! Exiles is a book that combines Quantum Leap, Sliders, and X-Men into one fantastic plot device. The team is pulled from various alternate realities, becoming ‘unhinged’ from time. To get back home, they must travel to other alternate realities fixing things that had gone wrong in the hopes that they will eventually be sent home. Unlike a lot of books, no one is really safe in Exiles. Despite that, you come to care for the characters and even mourn them when they die or move on. Obviously, it also has fantastic female characters or it wouldn’t be in this list. Some of the characters are: Blink, the team leader, Nocturne, who is Nightcrawler’s daughter, Mariko Yashida as Sunfire, Heather Hudson as Sasquatch and many more. Seriously, the list is longer than this paragraph. The series featured a well rounded cast that worked so well off of each other. This was one of my favorite Marvel books for a long time and I loved that there was such a strong cast of women in this series. It’s also a series that has made me cry the most.
She-Hulk ~ Dan Slott
When She-Hulk started up again in 2004 with Single Green Female I was blown away by it. Up until that point, I hadn’t found myself identifying with the characters in any of solo female books. Dan Slott’s take on Jennifer Walters changed that. Jen as She-Hulk was beautiful and confident, but when she was ‘just’ Jen Walters, she lost a lot of that confidence. She was kind of geeky and more than a little shy. In this series, she’s forced to look at who she is as a person, not just the persona she projects as She-Hulk. The book deals with gender roles in her profession, as She-Hulk, even in the bedroom. I loved the fact that some of her boyfriends had a hard time dealing with her being stronger than them. This was also a book that was positive about female sexuality, that it was ok for women to like sex. It sounds obvious, but there are still not a lot of books that do that without coming across as fan-service. Because of this series, She-Hulk became one of my favorite Marvel characters.
Batgirl ~ Bryan Q. Miller
Stephanie Brown caught my eye when she took over the role of Robin. There had never been a female Robin in the mainstream Batman lore and it was very cool to finally see one. Of course, it turned out to be a very temporary situation and Steph was back as Spoiler, then she was dead. After a few years, she was back, briefly as Spoiler again and then finally as Batgirl. When I first heard that Steph Brown was taking over the mantle of Batgirl, I was incredibly excited. Not only was she back, but she was getting the mantle of Batgirl, which carries recognition beyond what she got as Spoiler. Byran Q Miller took the controversial character and made her into something awesome. Stephanie Brown became the Peter Parker of the DC Universe. She’s smart, funny and self-deprecating. Initially, very few people respect her and even less are thrilled with her becoming Batgirl, but she doesn’t give it up. Her life is mired in tragedy, but she doesn’t gives up. She became a character that almost anyone, regardless of sex, race or religion could identify with because she embodies what it means to be human. I miss this book so much and I really hope Stephanie Brown gets her own book again soon, preferably with the same level of humanity.
There are many other books, characters, writers and other creators that I haven’t mentioned, but that aren’t immediately on this list. This is not a definitive list of “Awesome Female Characters in Superhero Comics”. While most of the list features male creators, it doesn’t mean there aren’t women who create and write in mainstream superhero books, or that I prefer male writers. This is just the list that came immediately into my head because I’m the most passionate about them. Others that come to mind are Devin Grayson when she was on Gotham Knights and Marjorie Liu on Black Widow and X-23. Liu is actually the only one that made me care about Black Widow. Until her series, I found the character to be kind of boring. I could write more (and maybe I will) but this article has to end sometime. There are many more, so I consider this a partial list.